Moana movie reviews: Disney's first Polynesian princess charts dazzling journey
Disney Animation Studios’ long-awaited, ocean-centric Moana finally sets sail later this month, with strong early reviews guiding the film along what critics are calling a magical journey into somewhat familiar territory.
The animated adventure comes via directors John Musker and Ron Clements, who previously helmed classic Disney titles like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, and critics seem to agree that they’ve crafted a dazzling, altogether timely fantasy amid the ongoing push for greater diversity in mainstream movies.
EW’s Devan Coggan notes the spiritual and physical voyage of Disney’s first Polynesian princess is a satisfying high note among the studio’s decades-long filmography, calling the potential Academy Award nominee — one of 22 eligible films for the Best Animated Feature consideration — “a pitch-perfect addition to the animated Disney canon” in her A- review.
Forbes‘ Scott Mendelson echoes Coggan’s sentiment, writing: “Moana isn’t just another solid princess-specific adventure. It’s acknowledgment of Walt Disney using its awesome corporate power, either through outright original stories or using stories from other cultures, to craft yet another piece of potent and primal female-centric myth-making.”
Other critics, while praising the film overall, have singled out the film’s Lin-Manuel Miranda-assisted soundtrack, including tunes “How Far I’ll Go” and “Where We Are” as worthy counterparts to “Let It Go” from 2013’s Frozen.
“The film front-loads her story with two exceptional original songs: The first conveys her father’s play-it-safe mantra, ‘Where We Are,’ while the other gives voice to Moana’s own horizon-challenging desires, ‘How Far I’ll Go’ — both the result of an inspired collaboration between Hamilton composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, longtime Disney music guru Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa’i, the lead singer of South Pacific fusion band Te Vaka,” wrote Variety‘s Peter Debruge. “Much as Moana means ‘ocean’ in Maori, effectively reinforcing the bond between the two, Miranda discovers a near-perfect rhyming connection between ‘daughter’ and ‘water.'”
Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Michael Rechtshaffen championed the film’s commitment to being both culturally sensitive and accurate, though he also praised the film’s aesthetics as some of the year’s best.
“If Moana boldly ventures beyond the reef, so, too, does the breathtakingly beautiful animation break fresh visual ground,” he wrote. “Letting the natural light of the sun and the moon inform virtually every textured frame, the film boasts backgrounds that are awash in phosphorescent greenery and shimmering blue waters.”
Read on for more reviews of Moana, which is scheduled to have its world premiere Nov. 14 at AFI Fest before hitting theaters nationwide on Nov. 23.
Devan Coggan (Entertainment Weekly)
Between The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog, directors Ron Clements and John Musker are responsible for helming some of Disney’s most iconic animated films. With their latest effort, they turn to the South Pacific, and not only does Moana feel like a worthy successor to Disney’s most beloved animated classics, but it pushes the genre into 2016, introducing a smart, diverse, and convincing heroine who struggles against lava monsters and self-doubt… Moana has a lot of the hallmarks of your classic Disney adventure — the goofy animal sidekicks, the feel-good messages — but its heroine is something new, a smart and fiery deviation from your standard European lovestruck princesses. (Thankfully, Moana doesn’t have a love interest.) The result is a pitch-perfect addition to the animated Disney canon.”
Scott Mendelson (Forbes)
“Moana sails through somewhat familiar waters, to the point where it sometimes resembles a mix-and-match of prior Disney animated classics. But it justifies its well-tread path via knowing humor (one animal sidekick is Bill Pullman-in-Ruthless People stupid) and a commitment to telling a damn good version of said story. Moana isn’t just another solid princess-specific adventure. It’s acknowledgment of Walt Disney using its awesome corporate power, either through outright original stories or using stories from other cultures, to craft yet another piece of potent and primal female-centric myth-making. That can be Disney’s legacy if they so choose. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing, provided it’s good. Moana is very good, and thus I enjoyed the hell out of it.”
Michael Rechtshaffen (The Hollywood Reporter)
“Appealing equally to the eyes, ears, heart and funny bone, Moana represents contemporary Disney at its finest — a vibrantly rendered adventure that combines state-of-the-art CG animation with traditional storytelling and colorful characters, all enlivened by a terrific voice cast.”
Eric Kohn (IndieWire)
“Visually dazzling and loaded with charm, the movie is also blatant in its quest for cultural sensitivity: It has memorable songs by Hamilton phenom Lin-Manuel Miranda and a first-rate mystical soundtrack by Samoan composer Opetaia Tavia Foa’i, in addition to a witty screenplay co-written by Kiwi funny man Taika Waititi, all which yields a lively opus that feels at once old school and modern… Notably, Moana bears no resemblance to the 1925 silent film directed by pioneering documentarian Robert Flaherty just a few years after Nanook of the North. In Flaherty’s Moana, the filmmaker staged ancient Polynesian rituals as if they were taking place in the present moment; despite the film’s lyrical beauty, it suffers from a corruptive Western gaze. Moana works overtime to keep that damaging force out of the picture, and like its individualistic young heroine, the studio shows signs of growing up.”
Peter Debruge (Variety)
“This musical tale of an empowered Polynesian princess marks a return to the heights of the Disney Renaissance, from the directors of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin… Naturally, these encounters give the quest-like storyline an episodic feel, and yet the dynamic between Moana and Maui deepens as the story unfolds, revealing her to be one of Disney’s most remarkable heroines yet: Rather than waiting for her prince (or whomever) to come, Moana takes control of her own destiny. Still, there’s a simplicity to the plot here that feels like a step back from the narrative complexity of some of Disney Animation’s recent achievement — most notably Zootopia, whose elaborate mystery plot left room for a powerful social message. Considering these two movies side-by-side, one can see how far the toon studio has come in recent years, and rather than judging them against one another (an exercise required only of Oscar voters), there’s something to be celebrated in the way Zootopia advances the storytelling possibilities of animation, while Moana demonstrates how Disney has gotten its mojo back. As princess movies go, this one broadens the studio’s horizons, and as Moana herself sings in the film, “no one knows, how far it goes.”
Steve Rose (The Guardian)
“Moana’s ‘know who you are’ message is the sort of thing we’d probably want our children to hear, and there’s a pleasing resonance in the way the movie transmits ancient folk knowledge via digital means. But Disney has set a high standard lately. Frozen defied its fairytale template by swerving into matters of sisterhood, Big Hero 6 pulled off a clever trans-Pacific cultural fusion, and this year’s excellent Zootopia was both a snappy, original comedy and a valuable primer in identity politics. Moana never quite reaches these heights. Its cultural setting is fresh; its storytelling, less so. It navigates the reefs but it doesn’t discover a whole new world.”